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With Obama Back, Faceoff on Immigration Looms

With Obama Back, Faceoff on Immigration Looms

By Alexis Simendinger - November 17, 2014

As President Obama returned to Washington Sunday after a week of break-through announcements in Asia and Australia, Republicans on Capitol Hill complained he wants to lure them into legislative impasses over immigration, climate policies, and the federal budget.

“I think the president wants a fight,” Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole said, referring to the president’s promise to defer the deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States using his executive powers.

“I think he’s actually trying to bait us into doing some of these extreme things that have been suggested. I don’t think we will,” Cole said on ABC News.

Those “extreme things” that Republicans on and off Capitol Hill broached aloud while Obama was half a world away included challenging his authority in court, tying his hands using Congress’s power of the purse, and impeachment.

A seismic midterm election has come and gone. The voters have spoken. And Washington’s leaders remain unyielding. A nanosecond of national conversation about “getting stuff done” for the American people after Nov. 4 quickly devolved into a bipartisan political brawl featuring constitutional powers and jujitsu tactics with prospective 2016 voters in mind.

This week, lawmakers must set a course toward a Dec. 11 funding deadline that could trigger another government shutdown if they can’t agree, and decide what legislative business will wait until Republicans control the Senate and House in January.

Rank-and-file conservatives lack a firm consensus, despite op-ed articles, slickly printed agenda documents and bullet-pointed election platforms. Democratic lawmakers, now thinned in number and clout, have indicated they’re jittery about the president’s prospects of being both artful deal-cutter and head-butter next year.

For his part, Obama is trying to settle on a plan he thinks can achieve Democrats’ immigration and budget policy aims, while reviewing how best to use veto threats and actual presidential vetoes -- power he’s exercised only twice before -- to block GOP-favored ideas.

The much-debated Keystone XL pipeline, backed by Republicans and some Democrats including Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, but opposed by environmentalists and Obama, may give the president an opening to set White House ground rules for his final two years of divided government. The Senate, steered by Democrats, this week will vote on whether to approve the pipeline, as a way for Landrieu to score points with her petroleum-loving constituents before her Dec. 6 runoff. The GOP-led House passed its Keystone measure last week. While the president has not put his veto threat in black and white, he made his misgivings clear.

On immigration, Obama touts his decision to move forward on deportation relief and other enforcement discretion as more of an invitation to the GOP than a threat. He believes, based on past conversations, that soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner privately want their colleagues to fashion a more welcoming posture toward more than 11 million undocumented migrants and their families already in the country.

Republican candidates this month triumphed in midterm contests despite majority Latino support for Democratic candidates. It was an outcome comparable, as a percentage of the electorate, to the 2010 midterms but less than the level of enthusiasm registered for Democrats in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project.

The growing Hispanic demographic nationally might not dramatically upend GOP strategy in two years, but if conservatives appear to claw back the economic opportunities Obama has vowed to grant immigrants, political analysts warn that Republicans may further undermine their standing with Latinos and with younger voters.

On the eve of this month’s elections, 65 percent of Latinos said the Republican Party does not care that much about or is hostile to the Hispanic community, according to a poll of 4,200 Latino voters, sponsored by the Latino Victory Project, National Council of La Raza, and America’s Voice. The overall survey had a margin of error of 1.5 percentage points.

If Republicans in Congress seek to block Obama’s executive action, 61 percent of respondents in the survey said they would feel much less enthused or somewhat less enthused about the party.

Obama and Democratic lawmakers maintained last week that there is Oval Office precedent and a legal foundation behind the president’s discretionary authority when it comes to immigration. By making changes even temporarily through the end of his term -- as Obama did in 2012 to offer deportation relief to offspring of undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children -- he is betting that inaction by Congress becomes less tenable.

Boehner and his conservative colleagues scolded Obama that he will “poison the well” for immigration progress in the future. The president, having heeded similar warnings in late 2013 and earlier this year after punting the issue himself during his first term, said with evident irritation that his days of waiting for Congress to act on immigration are over.

Lawmakers, he has said, have been tasked by a majority of Americans, by the business community, and by undocumented Latinos and their families to solve a significant and complex public policy problem that prevails despite decades of concentration on border enforcement, record numbers of deportations, and adoption of new technologies and safeguards to respond to immigration requirements.

“There is a very simple solution to this perception that somehow I'm exercising too much executive authority,” Obama told GOP lawmakers during a Sunday news conference in Australia. “Pass a bill I can sign on this issue.”

The president said the GOP’s comments that his immigration actions could prevent a budget agreement before mid-December (or hobble his nominee, Loretta Lynch, to head the Justice Department) are not guiding the timing of his announcement, or the specific options he will invoke.

“I think the main concern I have is to make sure we get it right,” Obama said Sunday. “That’s what we’re focused on at this point, because any executive action I take is going to require some adjustments to how … the Department of Homeland Security operates. ... I want to make sure that we’ve crossed all our t’s and dotted all our i’s. That’s my main focus.”

House Democrats who have pleaded with Obama to use his powers say undocumented workers who could be eligible for benefits under the president’s pending changes would have to wait until next spring or early summer because of necessary DHS adjustments to new personnel instructions. Obama’s parole powers, they added last week, could be exercised almost immediately. Some Republicans in Congress vow to block DHS funding that would support the president’s unilateral enforcement alterations. 

Obama’s advisers, including Attorney General Eric Holder and DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, reviewed executive options over the summer and met with the president before his trip to Asia to discuss recommendations.

Administration sources last week told Fox News and the New York Times that up to 5 million undocumented immigrants in the country could be protected by the president’s pending decisions, which appear aimed at keeping intact undocumented families that include members who are U.S. citizens or legal residents. Other immigration changes, which seem likely to be unveiled in December, could expand openings for legal immigrants with desired technology and science skills.

On Capitol Hill last week, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a leading advocate for immigration legislation and for executive action, said the president should not have postponed his decision until after the elections at the behest of nervous Senate Democratic candidates, the majority of whom lost.

When asked if Obama’s decision to wait had been a mistake that wound up depressing Democratic turnout, the lawmaker who has sparred in the past with Obama and the White House said the decision fed cynicism about the political process in all quarters.

“When you put partisan politics ahead of good public policy, you usually wind up with a situation you’re not proud of,” he told reporters. “What did it get him? He still lost the Senate resoundingly. What did it get him?”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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